A series in which we look at once common curiosities of pop culture that don’t exist anymore, be it because of changing tastes, the fragmentation of culture, or merely the fickle nature of fads.
In the 1987-88 season there were 47 live-action comedy shows in primetime amidst the 3.5 broadcast networks (Fox was new and part-time). In the 2012-13 fall season, the current season, there were 26. By and large they fall into two styles:
“¢ Single camera, narrative crafted like that of a movie or serial drama. (30 Rock, The Middle, Parks and Recreation)
“¢ Multi-camera, setup-setup-joke, traditional sitcom formula. (Two and a Half Men, Whitney, 2 Broke Girls)
When there were four networks dominating TV into the late 80s and early 90s, there weren’t just a lot more sitcoms, there were a lot more kinds of sitcoms. Networks were broadcasters and wanted to appeal to as many different kinds of people as possible, across economics, race, and age. Sometimes that meant bland comedy to appeal to the common denominator, but there was also something for everyone.
To whit, the kinds of comedies that no longer exist on broadcast TV.
Comedies about non-white people. Today, nearly all of the sitcoms on broadcast TV are geared toward semi-affluent young adults in the 18-49 advertiser-friendly demographic, and who are, it would seem, Caucasian. In the 1987-88 season, there were shows with non-white lead characters.: 227, Amen, A Different World, The Cosby Show, and Frank’s Place. In the 1995-96 season there were 13 (in part because new netlets UPN and The WB saw an open market): Cleghorne!, First Time Out, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, In the House, Sister Sister, The Parent Hood, The Wayans Brothers, Living Single, The Crew, Family Matters, Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper, The Preston Episodes, and Martin. Today, while casts have more diversity than they have in the past, reflecting reality, there are only two network comedies right now with a non-white main character: The Mindy Project and Guys With Kids.
Comedies for children. Known by the highly euphemistic ”family entertainment,” these are the kinds of shows that were pretty stupid and predictable, but safe and warm enough for even the smallest of children to watch, because they were made with children in mind. These kinds of shows usually had children on them, shows like ALF, Growing Pains, Who’s the Boss?, Perfect Strangers, Full House, and Mr. Belvedere. ABC made a ratings killing, placing shows in the Nielsen Top 20 from its Friday night ”TGIF” programming block of shows geared towards kids and pre-teens stuck at home (and the parents stuck at home watching them). Today? There are only a few comedies whose plots routinely involve child characters and that can be enjoyed by child viewers: The Middle and Modern Family (depending on your comfort with mild sexual situations). And Friday night on the whole is a graveyard of crime shows for old people and cheap newsmagazine shows, save two ABC sitcoms, Last Man Standing and The One With Reba McEntire, both of which are occasionally family friendly-ish and have children in them.
Comedies for teens. It’s interesting that while networks want to attract young adults so as to advertise stuff for them to buy, they don’t cater much to those just on the cusp of adulthood and its requisite purchasing power. At least not with sitcoms. My Two Dads, Head of the Class, Blossom, and The Facts of Life are three examples of 80s sitcoms focused on teens that appealed to teens. Again, the only shows with plotlines driven by teenage characters: The Middle and Modern Family.
These kinds of shows didn’t mostly die off; a lot can still be found on that common killer of the monoculture, cable TV, where niches neglected by the big 3 survive or even thrive. The Game, a show about African-American athletes and their families was cancelled by the CW, and moved to BET, where it gets better ratings than it did before. Shows about children are on Nickelodeon. Shows about teenagers on The Disney Channel dominate the cable ratings. TV Land, which airs reruns of classic TV, now airs original shows in the classic TV (i.e. laugh track and lazy jokes) format starring classic TV stars, such as Happily Divorced with Fran Drescher. However, by and large, these shows do not have the massive audiences or entry into the collective cultural consciousness that broadcast sitcoms did in the days of the monoculture.
But take out demographics and the appeal of these shows out of the equation, and there’s still a big difference between the comedies of then and the comedies of now: cheese. Sitcoms aren’t cheesy-horrible anymore. Even those Nickelodeon and Disney Channel shows aren’t cheesy—they aim to please a media-savvy generation, concerned with being cool even earlier than previous generations.
With the exception of sophisticated, innovative standouts like The Cosby Show, Cheers, Night Court, and It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, the comedies of the 80s were aggravatingly stupid. Amen was pretty bad. Who’s the Boss? was embarrassing. Mr. Belvedere feels like a Funny or Die parody of an 80s sitcom. Growing Pains drove Kirk Cameron slowly mad. When academics think TV is low culture and artless, these are the kinds of shows they’re thinking of. Kids cracked wise to their parents, dads were dumb, mothers mean, problems were solved in 30 minutes, aliens lived in garages, and all problems were solved with hugs or sage advice from very special guest stars Stacey Q and Nancy Reagan. They were awful, but damn were they ever comforting.